Data + Insights

Google Whisperer’s Guide to Location in Google Analytics

Ahead of the July 1st deadline, our Google Whisperer is here to break down how geolocation actually works, how accurate it really is, and what you can do about it.  

Just How Accurate Is the Location in Google Analytics?

Nothing is more frustrating than opening your website analytics and seeing you are getting users from across the city, state or country from your business. When building out your digital strategy and campaigns, a measurement of success is making sure you are in front of your customers. What do you do when you open Google Analytics and see traffic from cities nowhere near you? Does that mean that your strategy did not work? The answer to that question is complex and the Google Whisperer is here to break down how geolocation actually works, how accurate it really is, and what you can do about it.  

What Is an IP Address and How Does It Know My Location?

Before we start looking at the data we need to level set on terms. For starters, an IP address, or internet protocol address, is a numerical label that is associated with a computer or computer network. There are four kinds of IP addresses: private, dynamic, static and public. If you have never thought about your IP address before, that’s okay. Each internet service provider, or ISP, receives a set of IP addresses they assign to clients. The location of that IP address comes with the IP geolocation. “IP geolocation is the mapping of an IP address to the geographic location of the internet from the connected device.

By geographically mapping the IP address, it provides you with location information such as the country, state, city, zip code, latitude/longitude, ISP, area code, and other information.” (1) Combining an IP address with latitude, longitude, and other values is not a simple process. IP geolocation is usually done through a 3rd party service such as MaxMind or Ip2Location. Google even uses the same service, calling out that “Google Analytics uses a third-party datasource to determine your visitors’ geographical locations.” (2)   

Why Isn’t MY IP Address Accurate?

IP geolocations are only an approximate measure of the actual location of a user. There are a lot of factors that can impact this. For one, many ISPs provide dynamic IP addresses and cycle them throughout the service area. They should be updating the location when they rotate IP addresses, but it does not always happen. This is why you could be in Boston but your ISP thinks you are in Atlanta. This is also the same logic behind why you might see cities like Arlington or The Dalles in your Google Analytics. Those are two examples of locations of AWS servers where internet traffic can be routed through.

Finally, you may run into the city or state not even being set in the IP address. At Ansira, a city of “not set” now accounts for 15% of our website traffic. Half of that traffic also does not have a state set by the ISP. It doesn’t mean that it’s not real traffic, just that there is no location information provided. As privacy guidelines become more substantial, this city of “not set” is here to stay. 

Just How off Is That Location Information?

When trying to understand the accuracy of location information it’s best to start with the sources. MaxMind publishes their accuracy data on their website, saying, “For IPs located within the U.S., we estimate around an 80% accuracy at the state/region level, and a 66% accuracy for cities (within a 50km radius of that city).” (3) If-So, another agency that works with geotargeting, published their own study on geolocation accuracy. “With these services, you can obtain 95% to 99% accuracy of a user’s country. IP-based geolocation services provide 55% to 80% accuracy for a user’s region or state. And they provide 50% to 75% accuracy for a user’s city.” (4).  

I wouldn’t be the Google Whisperer if I didn’t dive right into all that Google data. For this study, we took 100 clients we are running Google Search for and compared the click location from Google Ads to the user location in Google Analytics. Users and clicks are never going to have a 1 to 1 correlation, but it is close. We found a 52% accuracy for a user’s city and an 82% accuracy of a user’s state.  

Diving into the data, you start to understand the “why” behind the findings. For one client, we are targeting Collinsville, IL for their advertising. In Google Analytics, that traffic shows as coming from Chicago, a 4-hour drive from Collinsville. Same state but two very different cities. Another client has advertising targeting San Fernando Valley and Burbank which all show as Los Angeles in Google Analytics. If you know the LA area, you know people aren’t going from the Valley to Downtown LA. Once again, same state but two different locations.  

Is All My Website Analytics Wrong?

Your website analytics are not correct. Google is providing the best data it can. The location of a user used to be an easy thing to identify. As consumers web activity has become more complex, the location of that user is not as clear as before. Your location report in Google Analytics does have some accuracy, just not as much as before.  

If you are looking to understand where your users are coming from, you should be leveraging the media partners and their reporting. They have much more accuracy on reporting where someone was when they saw your ad and clicked on it.  

As we get closer to July 1st, your Google Analytics data is going to become more complex and you have to keep on top of it. At Ansira, we are here to be a partner for media strategy, reporting, and customer data platforms. Reach out today to chat more about how we can help.  

By Colleen Harris

As Director, Product Manager at Ansira, Colleen Harris has over 13 years of digital marketing experience in the automotive, healthcare, and entertainment industries. She brings a passion for data analytics and content creation with published whitepapers on Google Analytics & Google Data Studio best practices.